As a general rule I don’t compare tragedies.
Some truly brutal things have occurred in the history of mankind, and to try to rank-order them by terribleness seems to demean them all. And misses the point. We should all do better. Be better.
In 1945, Kurt Vonnegut, then a prisoner of war, witnessed the firebombing of Dresden firsthand. He considered it the worst atrocity ever committed. He saw the corpses. He saw the destruction. He saw the agony, the brutality. He saw the senselessness of it all.
He couldn’t conceive of anything more terrible.
So he considered Dresden the worst atrocity of all.
And so it goes for all of us. Of all the terrible, brutal, dark, and destructive things mankind has done, some strike us individually more poignantly than others. Perhaps we were there or knew somebody there. Perhaps we relate to the victims. Or to the perpetrators. Perhaps some other reason moves us to feel a connection to that tragedy over others.
And that becomes, for us, the worst tragedy of all.
69 years ago, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later we dropped another on Nagasaki.
It’s hard to say exactly how many people were killed. Some were vaporized on impact, their shadows permanently branded on walls like a scene from some B-rate horror movie. Others died in the days that followed, wounded too severely to ever recover. And, of course, with the unleashed radiation of a nuclear explosion, many died in the months, years and decades since.
The trees in Hiroshima are still deformed.
I have seen that horror. As an American and as a physicist, that is my tragedy.
Many still make good-sense arguments about how resorting to nuclear weapons was the wise course of action. It ended the war, saving American lives. Arguably it saved Japanese lives as well – they are a proud people, they would never surrender in a land war, I’ve been told.
And what do I know? I am not a military strategist. I am not prepared to argue mathematical calculations of lives lost or lives saved. I don’t know how to do that.
All I know is – the horror.
The horror which has been part of human history since its dawn. The horror which we try to ignore. Which we try to make someone else’s problem, rationalizing it away until our own actions appear blameless. The horror we put in boxes and compare – as if a million and one lives lost is worse than a million lives lost.
As if all human darkness can be boiled down to a mathematical conclusion and a clean ranking of atrocities.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima is probably not the worst thing that’s ever happened. It’s probably not even the worst thing that happened during the War.
And yet it haunts me.
A group of scientists, not entirely unlike myself, thrilled by discovery and moved by patriotism, pursued their work. And unleashed hell.
When we look back at humanity’s long, dark road of abuses, we question how these horrors happened. What evil corrupted the perpetrators? What apathy or self-interest dissuaded the bystanders? How did the mass of Good men allow such a horror to unfold?
We look back with a critical eye and a shake our heads in superiority.
And yet the horrors continue.